The web expands to fill all boredom

Clay Shirky says:

The reading experience is so much more valuable now than it was ten years ago because it’s rarer. I remember, as a child, being bored. I grew up in a particularly boring place and so I was bored pretty frequently. But when the Internet came along it was like, “That’s it for being bored! Thank God! You’re awake at four in the morning? So are thousands of other people!”

It was only later that I realized the value of being bored was actually pretty high. Being bored is a kind of diagnostic for the gap between what you might be interested in and your current environment. But now it is an act of significant discipline to say, “I’m going to stare out the window. I’m going to schedule some time to stare out the window.” The endless gratification offered up by our devices means that the experience of reading in particular now becomes something we have to choose to do.

“Being bored is a kind of diagnostic for the gap between what you might be interested in and your current environment”: that’s well put. We don’t like being bored because boredom is the absence of engaging stimulus, but boredom is valuable because it requires us to fill that absence out of our own resources, which is process of discovery, of doors opening. The pain of boredom is a spur to action, but because it’s pain we’re happy to avoid it. Gadgetry means never having to feel that pain, or that spur. The web expands to fill all boredom. That’s dangerous for everyone, but particularly so for kids, who, without boredom’s spur, may never discover what in themselves or in their surroundings is most deeply engaging to them.

Perpetual boredom is an unattractive state. So is perpetual nonboredom.

10 thoughts on “The web expands to fill all boredom

  1. Charles

    I don’t believe Shirky’s childhood was really like that. But then, I don’t believe Shirky exists. He’s a figment of his own imagination.

    I don’t remember ever being bored as a child. I remember being irate that I didn’t have enough time to just sit and stare off into space and think. And all I wanted was a Pepsi.

  2. wanderingstan

    Learning to fill boredom is an important skill. When there is no interesting stimulus, how great to have the power to create your *own* interesting stimulus!

    I agree that it is especially important for children. I heard a speaker once who married a man with children, and after she limited their computer/game time, was appalled to realize that they did not know how to “go out and play.” They did not know how to create stimulus, only how to be stimulated.

    “The web expands to fill all boredom” is also well put!

  3. Kelly Roberts

    People have always been awake at 4:00 in the morning. Why does the existence of the internet make is more psychologically palatable?

    Succumbing to the “endless gratification offered up by our devices” is also something we choose to do. It just happens to be a much easier choice.

  4. Tom Foremski

    Reading less? I read way more thanks to the Internet and I bet everyone reads more too.

    There’s no value in intentionally seeking boredom. You have to become bored with all the vast stores of compelling content available in order to transcend their hold. Taking a break from it all merely elevates and tightens its hold. It’s like trying to give up cigarettes — it becomes all you think about.

  5. Nick Carr


    “I read way more thanks to the Internet and I bet everyone reads more too.”

    Sure, if we define reading merely as the number of words consumed. But Shirky is referring to “the reading experience,” which is something different: reading as an end in itself, not reading as a means of gathering info, solving problems, or social intercourse.

    “Taking a break from it all merely elevates and tightens its hold.”

    I think that’s probably right. And it’s an important point that’s often lost in talking about tempering the influence of digital media.


    I blogged about the peril of boredom years ago. Shirky’s recent revelations do not impress me at all, as his conversion to all things electronic (and self-promoting) and now retroconversion to presumed clarity of mind rings hollow. Sure, he can turn a phrase or two, but I don’t trust tech addicts to provide insight into anything not involving a keyboard.

  7. Paul Nicholas

    This is fascinating – thank you!

    Coming late to this debate I may have missed this point – but I have the impression that one of the central elements of reading has been left out – that of reading as an aesthetic experience.

    Are there not at least two very different kinds feeling – and hence experience – generated by our reading? One is a principally aesthetic experience, such as we derive from poetry and literature and concerned with emotions. The other is a principally intellectual one derived from ideas and reason. Clearly there is interplay between the two – we don’t have completely distinct and separate “emotional” and “rational” sides to our natures – and ideas too can move us emotionally.

    The latter feeling can certainly be satisfied by “internet reading”, but the former is much more satisfactorily met by books.

    I’ve just returned from a trip to the Wahiba sands in Oman. With me I’d taken “The Shallows” and George Moore’s collection of short stories of 19th Century Irish rural life, “The Untilled Field”.

    In such circumstances reading becomes a much more integrated element within an all-enveloping holistic experience. Reading two different books concurrently enhances contrasts and resonances that, especially when interwoven with terrain and ambience, creates an emotional and intellectual experience that is powerfully intoxicating for memory, imagination and inspiration.

    I don’t say this is impossible with internet reading – but I haven’t experienced it and have grave doubts as to its possibility.

    Thanks for the inspiration – and pleasure!

  8. Salman Khawaja

    Bertrand Russell had some very perceptive things to say about boredom.

    Boredom “is not to be regarded as wholly evil… A life too full of excitement is an exhausting life, in which continually stronger stimuli are needed to give the thrill that has come to be thought an essential part of pleasure. A person accustomed to too much excitement is like a person with a morbid craving for pepper, who comes last to be unable even to taste a quantity of pepper which would cause anyone else to choke. There is an element of boredom which is inseparable from the avoidance of too much excitement, and too much excitement not only undermines the health, but dulls the palate for every kind of pleasure, substituting titillations for profound organic satisfactions, cleverness for wisdom, and jagged surprises for beauty.”

    He argues that “A boy or young man who has some serious constructive purpose will endure voluntarily a great deal of boredom if he finds that it is necessary by the way. But constructive purposes do not easily form themselves in a boy’s mind if he is living a life of distractions and dissipations, for in that case his thoughts will always be directed towards the next pleasure rather than towards the distant achievement. For all these reasons a generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men, of men unduly divorced from the slow processes of nature, of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase.”

    Writing in 1930, he suggested that “the pleasures of childhood should in the main be such as the child extracts from his environment by means of some effort and inventiveness. Pleasures which are exciting and at the same time involve no physical exertion, such, for example, as the theatre, should occur very rarely. The excitement is in the nature of a drug, of which more and more will come to be required, and the physical passivity during the excitement is contrary to instinct.”

    He considered frequent trips to the theater detrimental the the development of a child. But what our digital devices offer us nowadays in terms of endless and instant entertainment is incomparably worse than, and a massive magnification of, the kinds of threats Russell thought were implicit in taking a child to see a musical a couple of times a week.

  9. GregLinster

    Living in a perpetual state of nonboredom certainly has its costs, which many choose to ignore.

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